Ten years ago, on her summer break from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Vesna Rebernak returned to her native Yugoslavia to visit her parents. The family lived in Ptuj, a small Slovenian town about 20 miles south of the Austrian border. "I was driving around thinking, 'Oh, this is the most beautiful country,'" Rebernak recalls. "Suddenly there were all these tanks and they are blocking the bridges, blocking the roads. The whole army was out." Slovenia had declared its independence from the republic, and Belgrade had responded by sending in troops.
With the support of its western European neighbors, Slovenia was able to break free of the republic without the bloodshed that would follow in Croatia, and by fall Rebernak was back in Chicago, earning her graduate degree in architecture. Troubled by the growing conflict in the Balkans and the propaganda being disseminated by its various factions, she and a group of Yugoslav Chicagoans formed Dialogue for Peace, which sponsored panel discussions, organized clothing drives, and staged cultural events.
The group was multiethnic, with Serb, Croat, and Slovenian members, and as the war spread, Dialogue for Peace found the dialogue harder and harder to maintain. "I was designing a poster for a benefit we were doing for the Red Cross," says Rebernak. "I had put the word genocide in the poster, and others in the group took exception to that word." The group voted her down, but Rebernak made the poster anyway, and the organization disbanded.
Over the next few years Rebernak formed other activist groups. She helped raise humanitarian aid for Bosnia, helped organize demonstrations against the U.S. arms embargo, and cofounded Bridge for Humanity, a cultural outreach program. But even this innocuous project was plagued by ethnic friction: in December 1994 it sponsored an evening of eastern European folk dance, with performers from Romania, Ukraine, Croatia, and Serbia, but a few days before the event Rebernak received two bomb threats, one warning her not to present Croatian dance and a second warning her not to present Serbian dance. The program had to be canceled and all the ticket money refunded.
The incident must have been especially painful given Rebernak's fond memories of cosmopolitan Yugoslavia in the 70s. With ties to both the eastern bloc and the West, the country attracted tourists from Italy and Poland, from the United States and the Soviet Union. "For the West we were the East; for the East we were the West. And we could cross into both worlds easily. I grew up on films American and Russian, and Italian, and French. We were really exposed to the whole world culture."
In 1995, Rebernak left Chicago for Washington, D.C., where her Bosnian husband taught mathematics at George Mason University. Two years later he died in a rock-climbing accident. To cope with the loss Rebernak opened LIPA, a gallery devoted to Slavic art, music, and literature, and early this year she decided to move it to Chicago. LIPA stands for "Links for International Promotion of the Arts," but lipa is also a Slavic word for "linden tree," a traditional meeting place in eastern European culture.
"It is the same word in all Slavic languages," says Rebernak. "I founded LIPA because I was sick of politics. I was sick of flags. I was sick of all those political slogans. I was sick of different religious factions. The lipa goes back to pagan times. There is nothing ethnic in it."
The gallery will open September 14 at 160 E. Illinois, suite 605, with a reception from 5 to 8 PM; the first exhibit is "Melting Time" by Slovenian painter Dusan Kirbis. "Ten Years After: Artists From the Former Yugoslavia and USA" surveys 12 artists from across the Balkans and will open tonight at HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo, with a reception from 5 to 8 PM. For more information call 312-751-9241.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.